In 1966-1967, Ramparts, The New York Times, and The Saturday Evening Post exposed and documented how, in the two post-World War II decades, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been supporting and using a network of cultural organizations for pro-American propaganda. With the exception of Africa and the Communist bloc, it had been a worldwide project. The sensation, however, had little lasting resonance. In her first book, Frances Stonor Saunders deals, in effect, with the question: Who still cares?
Saunders does care, and The Cultural Cold War intimates that the reader should, too. She writes: “The claim that the CIA’s substantial financial investment came with no strings attached—has yet to be seriously challenged.” The author set out to “undermine this myth of altruism” regarding culture subventions. Her text is a call to look back on history and learn the lessons and pitfalls of unchallenged covert actions.
In twenty-six evocatively titled chapters, each introduced with a pithy motto, Saunders presents her investigation into the cultural scene and related political institutions of the Cold War era. Her approach is both diachronic and synchronic. Beginning in Berlin during the winter of 1947, The Cultural Cold War moves to encompass CIA activities in Paris, London, the United States, and elsewhere, culminating in “that disastrous summer” of public exposure in 1967. According to U.S. historian and diplomat George F. Kennan (a frequently quoted reference), these were years in which the United States had “no Ministry of Culture, and [the] CIA was obliged to do what it could to try to fill the gap.” Saunders does not share this apologetic view—on the contrary, she considers it disturbing that, after 1967, “in the field of international covert operations, nothing at all had changed.” Implied is the problem that democratic forces demanding government accountability have not yet been brought to bear.
In her examination of the CIA in the Cold War, a significant factor for Saunders is the relationship of the United States’ “elite” to democratic ideals and practices. From the first, CIA recruits came predominantly from “the aristocracy’ of the eastern seaboard and the Ivy League, a Bruderbundof Anglophile sophisticates.” Ostensibly believers in democracy, these men, Saunders concludes, were basically “wary of unchecked egalitarianism.” For her, the “paradox of a defence of democracy mounted by patricians who were essentially deeply suspicious of it is hard to ignore.”
The men who became major facilitators, the “fixer[s]” of the Kulturkampf—that is, the three characters around whom Saunders constructs her narrative—were, however, outsiders: Michael Josselson, Melvin Lasky, and Nicolas Nabokov. Josselson and his contemporary Nabokov were exiles uprooted from Eastern Europe who had made their way via Berlin to the United States in the 1930’s; Lasky is a Jew born in 1920 in the Bronx. Whereas Josselson and his younger protégé Lasky are credited with considerable intelligence, Nabokov, from an upper-class Russian family and cousin of the novelist Vladimir, is characterized as having more charm and pretense than substance. Lasky spearheaded the first of two significant CIA-funded instruments of the cultural Cold War—the Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in 1950, and the journal Der Monat, launched in 1948, both in Berlin, the flashpoint of Cold War political and ideological tensions.
Like the “cultural consortium” of “pipe-smoking Yalies”—to use Saunders’s iterative epithet—Josselson, Nabokov, and Lasky were committed anti-Communists. Their seemingly limitless “official unofficial” influence as America’s cultural propagandists also made them “uninhibited by any sense of accountability.” Already by 1954, according to a report to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the “octopus-like CIA” tended to act as if “acceptable norms of human conduct [did] not apply.” Throughout, Saunders’s text conveys her moral outrage that “America’s cultural Cold Warriors could so easily disengage’ when it suited them” (for example, in their willingness to make a distinction between art and politics with relation to Nazism but not to Communism). Metonymically, Josselson, Lasky, and Nabokov embody the dangers against which Saunders’s book warns.
The Cultural Cold War investigates not only the operatives, but also the structures through which cultural propaganda was controlled, and money is a leitmotif. “We couldn’t spend it all,” recalled an agent. The two initial cultural fronts the CIA created in Berlin grew into an international network of Congresses for Cultural Freedom and literary magazines. The...
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